Leading New Zealand figurative artist Nigel Brown moves in a fresh direction with his latest body of work Gold Miners. Through painting and sculpture, Brown explores the colourful pioneer history of Central Otago during the gold rush.
In his own distinctive narrative style, Brown brings to life the rough and ready existence forged by our forefathers. In Brown’s paintings, familiar places such as Bannockburn, Gabriels Gully, Clutha, Dunstan and the Maniototo are transformed into Otago’s own Wild, Wild West.
Gold Miners is an unromanticised account of this historic period. Brown renders the human condition by contrasting scenes of hope and celebration with sentiments of greed, failure and disappointment. As Brown points out, the subject matter is as relevant today as it was in pioneering days; “the gold miners are as much about the present as the past. They are shadowed by the pursuit of wealth at the expense of the environment. That is as topical now as whenever.” (1)
Brown’s exhibition examines all elements of society such as racism, work and desire, and as with previous series, applies a social commentary to his paintings through the use of text. In bold black letters, words frame the paintings making statements such as “We Came Here, This Wild Harsh Country, In Search Of Gold And We Work Our Guts Out In All Weathers.”
Included in this body of work is a selection of naïve sculptures. These quirky works are constructed from nuts, bolts and painted wood, their rough appearance echoing the ethos of the gold miner who utilizes materials closest to hand.
There is a camaraderie between these “hard doer” men. They come from different backgrounds and yet have a common ambition, to find elusive gold within the hostile Otago environment. Brown depicts both the Chinese miners living on the outskirts (Yet We Are Of This Country and Chinese Miner), and the backbreaking labour associated with mining, (Gold In Places and Sluice Box), where bearded men toil as they defile the arid land in the hopes of striking lucky. He captures moments of drunken exhaustion (The Gold Miner’s Bed and Clutha Gin), debauchery and depravity (If I Could Sprinkle Gold Dust) and the frustration of defeat (Mad For Gold and Reality Check). Above all lies hope, glimmering in the miners’ eyes as he sees a fellow man find a nugget or catches a glimpse of gold in the river gravel.
Gold mining is a natural subject matter for Nigel Brown, as it runs in his blood. Both his father and grandfather were born at the Kyeburn diggings, his great grandfather following the gold trail from Australia to sluice at Naseby. In 2000, Brown moved from Auckland to a coastal property in Cosy Nook, Southland, and in so doing became conscious of the gold fever in neighbouring ghost town Orepuki.
1. Nigel Brown, Artist statement, 2007.